Not-So-Safe-Deposit Boxes: States Seize Citizens' Property to Balance Their Budgets

"It's supposed to be segregated and protected," Palmer said. "California has taken all of that $5.1 billion and has used it as a massive loan."

California became so addicted to spending people's money, that, for years, it simply stopped sending notices to the rightful owners. ABC News obtained a 1996 internal memo in which the lawyer for the Bureau of Unclaimed Property argued against expanding programs to notify rightful owners. He wrote, "It could well result in additional claims of monies that would otherwise flow into the general fund."

Seizing More Than Safe-Deposit Boxes

It's not just safe-deposit boxes. A British man went to retire and discovered the $4 million in U.S. stock he had been counting on had been seized and sold for $200,000 years earlier -- even though he was in touch with the company about other matters.

A Sacramento family lost out on railroad land rights their ancestors had owned for generations -- also sold off as unclaimed property.

"If I had hung onto it, I would be a millionaire, multimillionaire," said John Whitley. "But that didn't happen because we didn't get to hold it."

State Reforms

California's unclaimed property program was so out of control that, last year, the courts issued injunctions barring the state from seizing any more property until it made reforms. Since then, Chiang has taken several steps to try to clean up the program.

For example, the state now sends notices alerting citizens about unclaimed property before it is handed over to the state -- the only state to do so. Once unclaimed property is delivered to the state, it is now held for several months while the state tries to contact the owners, rather than it being immediately sold off or destroyed.

Which raises the question, in the Internet era, is anybody really lost anymore? California and other states are just beginning to make use of modern databases that can find most anyone in minutes. Unfortunately, California only uses those databases to search after it has already seized a citizen's property.

If California does get better at locating people, that could present another challenge. Remember, right now, the state spends the money.

"It's like the last guy in line at a pizza parlor," Palmer criticized. "There is only so much pizza. At the end, when I get up to the counter to claim my pizza, there may be no pizza for me."

California's fiscal problems are legendary and once again in the news, so it's reasonable to question whether the state can afford to repay its citizens if a bunch of them surface at once.

"There is always going to be money to give the owners when they make their claim, " Chiang insisted. "I don't want my legacy to say I continued a broken program. I want my legacy to be 'this guy was the guy who truly cared about the people and returned their money.'"

California is not the only state to come under fire for its handling of unclaimed property. In Delaware, unclaimed property is the third largest source of state revenue. Idaho recently passed an unprecedented law that says the state gets to keep unclaimed property permanently if the rightful owners don't claim it within 10 short years. And all 50 states pay private contractors 10 to 12 percent commissions to locate and seize accounts for them. It's an inherent conflict of interest: the more rightful owners are found, the less money the contractors make.

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